Accordions Worldwide Celebrity Interview, Maria Kalaniemi

July 5, 2003
Interview conducted by Kevin Friedrich in Ikaalinen, FINLAND

Maria Kalaniemi, born 27 May 1964 is established in Finland and abroad, as one of the world's most talented accordionists, not only as a technically skilled player but also as a gifted composer. Her specialty is with Finnish Folk Music.

A master of free-bass button accordion, Maria is one of Finland's leading Folk accordionists. Melody is the meaning and with Maria, listeners are sure to feel her message deeply!

Maria was guest artist at the Sata-Häme Soi Accordion Festival in Ikaalinen on July 5th, 2003 and was kind enough to spend some time to answer some readers questions for this Accordions Worldwide Celebrity Interview.

Q. Tell us a little about the town where you were born, and where in Finland is it located? Where do you live now?

A. I was born and raised in in Helsinki and continue to live in that area today. I live in Espoo just in the outskirts of Helsinki, the Capital of Finland.

Q. Tell us a little about the other musicians in your family.
A. Although there are no other musicians in my family, my father, mother and grandmother were very fond of accordion music and its sensitivity. They considered the accordion the 'King of Music.'

My grandmother wanted to play the accordion but couldn't afford one in her day. She even borrowed one for a while from a boy in the neighborhood, but had to give it back when he needed it. I grew up with the sound of the accordion on the radio and with records and I also grew up surrounded by Folk Music.

My father loved folk music. It meant a lot to him and so I grew up with an appreciation for this type of music. The melody line is so important and to me, one single note can say a whole word.

Q. What role did your parents play in your early music education?
A. As I mentioned, they didn't really play any musical instruments, but instead they supported me so much in my music.

My grandmother was so excited that when I started playing the accordion that she immediately took me to an Old Folks Home to have me play for people.

Q. What is your earliest memory of the accordion?
A. Growing up in a family that loved the Finnish Folk music and the accordion, I grew up listening to accordion music on the Radio and on Records.

Q. Why did you choose the accordion rather than another instrument?
A. I liked the accordion because I loved the sound and I also felt you could express yourself with it so well. It is like an extension of your soul. I stared accordion lessons at eight years old playing Folk Music and then started Free Bass accordion lessons when I was 12 years old.

Q. Was your first accordion the same type of instrument that you play now?
A. I started at 8 years old with a small 5 row button accordion.

Q. Did you have any musical hero's as a child?
A. My teacher Heidi Velamo has been a real inspiration to me.

Q. Most Folk musicians, while expert in their own right, don't always have the classical style background that you have. How would you best describe what you do? What makes Maria - Maria? Have you tried to develop your own personal style?
A. My style is the result of my love for Finnish Dance Music, Classical Music and Folk Music. In addition, I also like all kinds of music such as AC-DC, Jimmy Hendrix, Rock. I like music that is rhythmical such as pop and ethnic music.

My roots are in Finnish Folk music however. I love the phrasing of Folk music and I like to make each note special. I think my classical studies were important to give me a technical basis, but now I have tried to find my 'own' way in developing my style.

To me each note is so important, how I start it, and where I go with it. It is more than just playing many notes quickly. I love to use free bass to double my melody lines and to form chords. To me each note is special and is treated with care.

Q. At the Sibelius Academy you were in the Folk department. How was this department run in conjunction with or in addition to the classical department?
A. The Folk Department is completely separate from the Classical Music Department, although there are some students who take lessons from both.

Q. Were your free-bass studies a result of requirements at the Sibelius Academy, or from your previous background, that you just happened to incorporate into the Folk Department
A. I started playing Free Bass when I was 12 years old.

Q. In addition to free bass, you also place an emphasis on bellows control/technique.
A. The bellows control is very important to me. It is like the soul of the accordion. I respect each note and how it sounds and I can do so much by using the bellows.

Q. You are well known for your original compositions. How much of your music is your own composition/s? How much is your own arrangements?
A. Its about half of my original compositions and half of my arrangements. (50/50)

Q. Is there any teacher or artist to whom you would like to pay particular tribute, for their inspirational effect on your musical career.
A. My accordion teacher Heidi Velamo is my main teacher and one who has helped me most.

Q. At what age did you make your first paid appearance?
A. I don't remember my first paid appearance, but I do remember being taken to play for the Old Folks Home by my family quite often.

Q. Do you teach the accordion and tell us about your courses?
A. I am the director of accordion at the Folk Music Department at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki. There has been a surge of interest in Folk Music and so we are getting more people involved. Teaching involves quite a few things including 1 and 2 row diatonic accordion and free bass.

In the Folk Music department there are also other important factors such as the players composing, arranging and performing things themselves. I think its important for the students to not only become technically adept, but to also learn to concentrate on the sound they are making.

Just like a violinist is taught from a young age to take care of the sound they make by always listening to each note, the beginning, the end, what happens in the middle, I think it is something that an accordionist needs to be taught as well.

Q. Do you have any family and do they share your interest in music?
A. I am married but do not have any children. My husband is Olli Varis and is a Punk Rock Guitarist who has now developed a passion for Folk Music. We have recorded together and my husband also teaches at the Folk Department in the Sibelius Academy.

Q. How do you think we can popularize the accordion?
A. There are always going to be people who do not take the accordion seriously, but this is everywhere. I think it is extremely important to play with other good musicians.

It is also extremely important to be a very good musician yourself, so that people want to play with you. This helps gain respect for both you and the accordion.

Q. You have often recorded with other instrumentalists in your groups such as Niekku, Aldargaz, and also accordionists in Accordion Tribe, Helsinki Melodeon Ladies. Which non accordion instrument/s did you feel most effectively compliment the timbre of the accordion?
A. I really enjoy my work with pianist Timo Alakotila. I think working with a pianist is my favorite at the moment.

With the piano, Timmo can take care of the harmony work as well sometimes which means I don't have to play bass all the time, and this lets me concentrate purely on the melody.

Q. What do you see as the most important event of your career?

A. I think my most important move is becoming the director of accordion at the Folk Music Department at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki.

NB: Although we didn't get to discuss this in the interview, Maria was the winner of the first ever Golden Accordion Award, a live nationally televised accordion competition which was held for the 20th time this year. The direct result of this was the opportunity to record her first album, featuring, as in the competition, traditional Finnish dance tunes. The album was released by the Accordion Institute of Ikaalinen.

Q. You have many recordings for sale and where can the be purchased?
A. I have several CD's available and they can be found online at

Q. What advice do you have for aspiring accordionists wanting to form bands and be professional performers?
A. I think its important for up and coming musicians to find what is most comfortable for them. Of course its very important to develop good skills, but virtuostic can mean many things, such as bellows, phrasing and technique.

This all takes many hours of work, but I recommend that the young artists just try and develop their own personality and style.

Q. Do you have any musical heroes today?
A. My musical hero is Jan Garbarek, a sax player from Norway.

Q. What non accordion music do you most like to listen to?
A. I like anything that is good music. I like rhythmic music, but like everything from AC-DC to Jimmy Hendrix to Classical and Rock and Pop and Ethnic.

Q. What other interests and hobbies besides music do you have?
A. My main interest outside of music is my dog Tessa, a Bull Terrier.

Maria is pictured here with her dog Tessa in a photo by Minna Plihtari during an interview for Hanuri magazine, the National news publication of the Finnish Accordion Association.

Minna is the Public Relations Manager for the Sata-Häme Soi Festival and Editor of the Hanuri Magazine.

Q. What are your more immediate career objectives and where do you see your career progressing in the future?

A. I am enjoying my work with other artists and am working on those projects of performances and recordings. I like to have a balance between home life and my musical career.
Also, one thing that has always appealed to me, is I would love to be able to just sit down and do an hour show by improvising, such as is done by one of my favorite musicians, Keith Jarret.

For more information on Maria such as complete bio, concert dates, recordings and information on the various groups she plays in, please visit:
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